11 July 2024

Being a complete political outcast is difficult, especially in Thailand, where one man’s villain is easily another man’s hero. Deputy Agriculture Minister Thammanat Prompao has not fallen into the “ostracized” category yet, but it looks increasingly like he may have fewer and fewer friends from now on.


Many in the government bloc did not like it when he was appointed to the Cabinet. The foreign media and activists mentioned his shady background long before it became a big news story a few days ago. House Speaker Chuan Leekpai has been made awkward by a media question about Thammanat being stripped of a military rank when he (Chuan) was prime minister. For the opposition, seeing his name on the ministerial line-up must feel like a dream come true, as they must have seen him as a sitting duck.


The opposition’s target practice has begun, following a reopening by Australia’s media of his legal past in their country.  The Herald and The Age reported that he spent four years in a Sydney jail in the 1990s for his role in trafficking 3.2 kilograms of heroin into Australia. He was deported on his release, it was said.


He has threatened to sue, insisting that he was never convicted and was only spending time in custody to fight his case. An opposition leader, Seripisut Temiyavej, head of the Seri Ruamthai Party, claimed responsibility for “tipping off” the Australian media. Several other Cabinet members declined comments, asking reporters to approach Thammanat himself. Chuan invoked his characteristic “I did everything according to due process” when confronted about the rank stripping.


In short, a can of worm has been opened. Thammat’s legal past _ what exactly happened in Australia _ can be very important to determining whether his appointment was proper or even constitutional. But through all this, the biggest opposition party cannot be totally happy.


Thammanat entered politics by joining Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party, which even made him a party-list candidate. But for a nullification of an election in 2014, he could also have been a Pheu Thai party-list MP under Yingluck Shinawatra as well. It’s anyone’s guess how far he could have gone from there.


He defected to Palang Pracharat after Prayut Chan-o-cha’s coup. While he served as a Bangkok strategist for Thaksin’s party, the controversial man has been entrusted to look for weak spots of its rural dominance by his new bosses. He has satisfied them, say news reports, which also speculate that he must have developed a strong bond with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan.


Prayut and Prawit have been guardedly protective of him. But that can change, with dirt continues to be dug up.


His appointment to the Cabinet is deemed part of crucial evidence that the politics of old remains undefeated, with influential faction leaders getting the ministerial picks ahead of truly qualified people.


Obviously a lightning rod, Thammanat is also apparently a hot potato. He has cut Thaksin’s party loose but the man is now in a position where just about everyone may have to cut him loose. Politics, after all, has done that to less controversial people.